BY LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Problems. There’s no shortage of them these days — the pandemic has spurred countless challenges and intense despair; there are too many to list. Teaching during the pandemic has been a challenge in and of itself, as we are always looking for ways for students to be engaged with curricula and drive their learning, and that’s hard to do whether we’re teaching in person or remotely.
If you think back to your college or grad school days, you may recall the constructivist thinkers, such as Jean Piaget, who believed that students learn best when they construct their own learning. Problem- and project-based learning offers teachers an opportunity to do just that — instead of telling students the answers, you can create a learning environment in which students learn through discovery, thinking, tinkering, reflecting, and developing answers on their own.
We may already be familiar with ways that we can bring this type of learning to in-person classrooms, but it can also be delivered to students who are learning in remote or blended environments.
Problem-based learning vs. project-based learning
Project-based learning is situated in real-life learning. The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem or challenge.” If you ever walk into a classroom and see students working on a project with an exciting buzz in the room, chances are, their teachers have designed a project-based learning task.
In our own lives, we know that when working on a project, we often discover a problem we didn’t realize we had — but once it surfaces, it demands a solution. (Remember those early pandemic days when we were acclimating to teaching remotely, but also trying to solve the problem of having no dedicated teaching space at home?) In teaching, this idea rings true, too. As we are learning more about a topic, we may discover a problem alongside our students, and this is the breeding ground for an exciting new project. This is the foundation of problem-based learning.
Problem-based learning also offers students real-life learning opportunities, as well as the chance “to think creatively and bring their knowledge to bear in unique ways” (2020 Schunk, p. 64). Problem-based learning can look differently depending on the content and grade level, but often includes group discussions that allow for multiple perspectives on a topic, a simulated situation that involves role playing, or group work that includes both collaborative work and time to complete tasks individually.
Problem-based learning promotes autonomous learning, self-assessment skills, planning time, project work, and oral and written expression skills. According to a July 2020 article from the Hechinger Report, problem-based learning has gained tremendous momentum, because it allows students to work more freely and at their own pace — a key advantage when learning remotely. In problem-based learning, the content and skills are organized around problems, rather than as a hierarchical list of topics. It’s also inherently learner-centered because the learner actively creates their own knowledge as they attempt to solve the problem.
Putting the “Problem” into Practice
As former English teachers, we both understand the challenge of putting new professional learning into practice. For teachers who need a refresher on how to design a problem-based learning experience for their students, Problem Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement and Assess breaks down the steps to move PBL into practice as follows:
To help put these problem-based steps into perspective, we can look to our recent work with partners from a high school in the South Bronx. The chemistry team there decided to use an anti-racist lens while addressing a problem that was very real to their students — fireworks. During the summer of 2020, there was a record number of firework incidents in New York City. According to an article in the New York Times, the city received over 1,700 fireworks complaints in the first half of June alone. Our partners used this problem as an opportunity for students to research fireworks from multiple lenses, and imagine how they might present their findings and recommendations to local officials. After all, shouldn’t New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hear from high school students in the Bronx about the effects fireworks have on their communities?
Here’s what the framework might look like in this example:
From here, we can imagine the possibilities for this framework, considering how students might address the underlying problem from different perspectives and content areas:
Teaching and learning throughout a global pandemic has presented more than its share of challenges. Out of necessity, tremendous innovation has taken place with the use of technology, pedagogy, and curriculum. With problem-based learning, we can continue this innovation in our classrooms, offering our students opportunities to solve real world problems, demonstrate critical thinking, and collaborate with their peers. We would love to hear what problem-based learning tasks you are designing for your classrooms!
BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
I have been an educator for over twenty years, but I can still remember being a first-year teacher and asking my students to pair read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. I was nervous, and anticipated comments like, “Miss, aren’t we too old to read aloud? And in pairs? That’s little kid stuff.” But after I modeled the process with another teacher, I broke my students off into pairs and, within minutes, my ninth grade students were reading with one another. Students plopped themselves throughout my classroom, on the floor and at desks, and were taking turns reading aloud and talking to each other. I glanced around the room in amazement at the pairs reading softly, talking, giggling a bit, looking at each other, looking at their books. This is what school should look like, I thought to myself. This is what learning looks like. This is what working together looks like. I felt tears well up in my eyes witnessing reading as a social activity, and was never more certain of my career choice.
This moment embodies what I love about teaching. But anyone who teaches will tell you that this moment represents a mere slice of teaching life. Teaching is also grading papers, homework, projects, and everything in between. And at the end of each term, every student needs to have a grade next to their name. What plagues so many of us is how to grade students as fairly as possible — how can we assess students frequently enough to give them multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and to inform our lesson planning?
This assessment dilemma is real for me. In addition to my work at CPET and as a literacy consultant, I am also an adjunct professor, and my roster this term has doubled in size. I know how important it is to use formative assessments in my classroom — James Popham says it best: “Formative assessment works!” — but the only way formative assessment really works is when the teacher efficiently grades and provides feedback in a timely manner. Nobody sets out to be that teacher who students refer to as "the one who never gives anything back" (cue student eye roll).
I reached out to my colleagues at CPET for advice on how to grade formative assessments effectively and efficiently, and will share with you some of their pragmatic tips:
While I may not love grading papers as much as I love watching my students read to each other or interact with one another as curious learners, I know that assessments matter to my students, and they guide my lesson designs. Reading our students’ work is an effective step in meeting their needs.
What methods have worked well for you? We’d love to hear the ways in which you’re effectively managing your time and assessments — comment below or tag us online @tccpet!
By LAURA RIGOLOSI
In addition to the excitement (and anxiety, let’s be real) of beginning a new year and a new teaching semester, we all now have the added worry about how we will adapt or continue with our hybrid classrooms or remote teaching, without meeting our students face-to-face. Like many of you, I am prepping to teach online this spring, and my courses will be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction — terms I had never considered before teaching during a pandemic.
There are some perks to teaching online of course, particularly the lack of commute and the choice to dress professionally enough for a Zoom meeting. But preparing to teach online has spurred me to research the best practices for teaching remotely. I know what an engaged class looks like in person, but will I be able to match that same level of engagement in an online setting? To be clear, I believe an engaged classroom is one where the students are doing the deep thinking, discussing, writing, and reading throughout the class. For so many teachers, classroom discussions are not only one of the greatest joys in teaching, they are essential for student learning and engagement! And most teachers are evaluated through Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching, which highlights teachers whose students are actively problem-solving and discussing complex concepts. So, how can we have meaningful class discussions remotely? Is it possible?
As I listened to Teaching Today’s episode on this topic, I kept pausing to jot down notes that will support my instruction. The episode’s panelists — Courtney Brown, Dr. Cristina Romeo Compton, Dr. Sherrish Holloman, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, Dr. Marcelle Mentor, and Brian Veprek — left me with takeaways that I can implement in my own online classrooms, to help promote discussions during a time of distance learning.
Who’s doing the asking?
When we create space for students and encourage them to ask questions about our curriculum, we are putting students in the driver’s seat, and allowing their curiosities to drive the curriculum. This is a way for students to buy into the learning, and as Cristina notes, encouraging students to ask questions about the curriculum or texts is a powerful way to promote engagement. The importance of having students generate their own questions (instead of replying to a teacher-created question) is punctuated by the concept developed by Roberta and Brian: when students are the ones who are driving the learning, there is no need to worry about student buy-in.
Speaking of students asking questions…
Grade school students often ask “why?” and are frequently less self-conscious about asking questions. Secondary or adult learners can be more guarded and do not always feel comfortable sharing their questions or wonderings. Teaching students which questions are the most fruitful for a discussion is a great technique for all ages. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is one option for teaching students how to practice asking a variety of questions about a particular topic. This protocol encourages students to pose both “closed” or “open” questions, and then students decipher the different types. No matter how teachers use this protocol, student questions often lead to more engagement and deeper content knowledge.
Small group discussions
Sharing in a low-stakes way
In the timeless Mind in Society, Vygotsky (1978) advocated for student discussion explaining, “By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.” In the spirit of giving students “frames for thinking on their own,” having them discuss academic ideas in small groups is a less intimidating way for students to share their thoughts. For synchronous classes, Zoom breakout rooms can replace small group discussions. Creating Zoom breakout rooms, perhaps after a jigsaw reading or as a way to practice sharing in a low-stakes way, is a way to replicate small group discussions. Teachers can join each breakout room to listen in and observe, just as they would circulate in a classroom. Of course, teachers can be concerned that students may get off task in breakout rooms, but this is the same issue we face in in-person classrooms — we can’t be everywhere at once. As Roberta points out, we aren’t really in control — we only have the illusion of control.
Familiar breakout groups
Don’t switch it up! If you’re teaching a group of students for the first time and the class meets synchronously via Zoom, Courtney suggests keeping breakout groups the same, at least for the first part of the year. While the instinct may be to switch groups so students can get to know each other, starting the year with online or blended learning is different from anything most of our students have experienced. If issues in groups arise, then it may make sense to revisit grouping, but if possible, try to keep the groups the same for an entire unit — maybe even for the semester. This will help students build a community within the group as their interaction with other classmates is so much more limited. And as with any group work, it is always important to discuss norms, expectations, and set routines for small (and big) group discussions.
Even though you’ll be able to see students' faces through little boxes on your computer screen during big group discussions in a synchronous class, you may have a harder time “reading the room” — anticipate having to insert writing breaks and purposeful pauses in order to give students time to process and participate.
One way to help students notice their thinking during a discussion (and to encourage them to stay on task) is to have them share or post their discussion notes. This is also an effective way for teachers to notice patterns and themes that are emerging in student thinking. How can we take notes during an online discussion?
If students are already using Google, asking them to utilize a Google Doc for notetaking (perhaps one ongoing document that they add to for each discussion) is a practical strategy. In Google Docs, students can take turns as the notetaker, and others can add to the document if anything is missing. As Brian points out, teachers can notice who is participating in taking notes on their discussion by checking the doc’s version history. This is a way to see if students are, in fact, all adding to the notes. In addition to joining breakout rooms, viewing groups’ Google docs in real-time is a way to gauge which group is on their way, who needs help, and how much time they may need to continue their discussion.
Chatting within Zoom
For full class discussions, asking students to write in Zoom’s chat feature is a simple way to capture students’ ideas in real-time. At the end of the Zoom call, Marcelle recommends that the teacher copies and posts the chat on their class website as a record of notes from that day (much like a chart paper of class notes on the classroom wall). I’ve been concerned about how I would capture class discussions the way I would in a physical classroom — now, we can all write our ideas into the chat, and voila, there is a record of our class! But remember — the Zoom call has to end before the chat can be copied.
Discussions don’t always have to include talking
One of the perks of asynchronous learning is that it can allow for more flexibility, and help lessen any anxiety students feel about live video calls. Using platforms such as Padlet or Google Jamboards are alternatives to having shared, written discussions. Marcelle suggests a quote-centered protocol for moments like this — students are asked to share (in writing) quotes from the class text, and then their classmates are asked to respond to the quotes, taking time to consider why the quotes are significant. This is not only a helpful option for having a discussion asynchronously, but also a chance to give students a break from face-to-face interactions.
Protocols can be your discussion friend
Providing simple discussion frames with sentence starters like “I believe this means...”, “This is significant because…”, or “As a next step, perhaps…”, offers students a meaningful way to discuss a topic, or process a text or problem set. Students can begin by jotting down their ideas in writing, which will help prepare them to share their ideas in a discussion — asynchronous or otherwise. Not sure where to begin? Try our What, So What, Now What? tool that supports student observation, analysis, and inquiry.
Low-tech options require your imagination
Marcelle suggests using a phone app such as WhatsApp to send out discussion prompts to students, and asking them to write back within the app. Teachers can then collate the responses and report back to the class what others have written. Another low-tech option involves breaking up your class structure, pairing students up, asking them to exchange phone numbers, and having them call each other on the phone to have a conversation on a particular topic! Let them write up their conversation, and post or share it with you or the class.
Similarly, you can pair students up to explain the written assignment, and ask them to write letters to their partner, then send via USPS! It will cost students about $.50, but what a delight to receive a letter in the mail! (Of course, there is no way of screening letters, so you may need to set up some parameters). It seems ironic to suggest these systems of communication for an online class, however students (and teachers!) may appreciate these alternative ways of discussing concepts.
After listening to the Teaching Today team and reflecting on their conversation, I am recommitted to believing that meaningful classroom discussions can still happen during distance learning. And while I am still concerned about teaching online (what if my students have weak wifi? What if my wifi is wonky? What if my own kids are having a difficult time working independently while I’m teaching?), I also realize these issues are somewhat out of my control. I now feel more confident incorporating discussions into my online classrooms — even while teaching in a blazer and yoga pants.
By LAURA RIGOLOSI
Although I have been teaching via Zoom for several months, I don’t know if I will ever truly adjust to speaking to my computer and seeing the faces of my muted students in little boxes. But Zoom etiquette, as we have all come to learn, is to mute when someone else is speaking so everyone can hear the speaker. Herein lies my main discomfort as a Zoom teacher: to speak to my students and to not hear their little sighs, mmhmms, and quiet huhs?, has been my biggest unexpected challenge. It’s hard to get a sense of what my students are thinking or reacting to without hearing these small sounds. And while I know I can’t rely on these impulsive responses as a form of assessment, they’ve always helped me take a quick pulse of my class to check for understanding.
I’m not suggesting that we use the impromptu reactions of our students as a way to assess them — but as teachers, hearing students’ reactions nudges us to wonder, Is this a good place to stop? Do I need to check in with a few students? I miss that.
So with our students on mute (unless they are speaking), formative assessments are as essential as ever in online teaching. James Popham, the assessment guru, explains that “formative assessments help students learn” because they are “assessments for learning;” not “assessments of learning.” In other words, formative assessments gauge how much our students are understanding or processing information; the purpose is not an assessment for teachers to grade for accuracy, but for teachers to use to adjust their lesson planning. After all, formative assessments are often linked to effective teaching practice. The Black and Wiliam Research Review, from over 20 years ago, “shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning.” (Black and Wiliam, 1998a, p. 61).
Recipes for success
I have used a variety of formative assessments in online teaching, and they each serve a different purpose. Here are the formative assessments I am currently using while teaching online:
Consistent breakout groups
As Courtney Brown mentions in Discussions During Distance Learning, it is best to keep students in the same small groups throughout the semester, instead of randomly grouping them. When students are online, they have no chance to get to know each other — there is no partner share, no turn and talks, no walking into class together and making conversation. To implement this with my students, I put them in small groups using the breakout rooms feature on Zoom, and then used the polling feature to ask students whether or not they were okay staying in these same groups throughout the semester. This would allow them an opportunity to form deeper connections within their group, and feel more comfortable interacting with one another. Thankfully, they all answered “yes.”
Once students are in the same groups, they are able to visit our class Google Drive folder where they can find folders for each week we meet. For each class, I create a simple note taking template that changes depending on our topic of the day, and students use these templates to capture their small group discussion ideas. When students return to the main group, they share these documents with all of us by sharing their screen in Zoom.
While students are in their groups, I can assess how they are doing in two ways — first, by popping into each breakout room, to hear moments of their conversations and to see if they have questions; and second, by viewing their Google documents to see how they are progressing. This is my favorite way to check in on my students’ learning in real time — viewing their writing as it happens helps me determine who may need some more scaffolding or assistance, as well as which group is already finished with the note-taking document and may be ready to move on. It is also my way of noting which students are writing in these documents, thanks to Google’s editing feature.
To vary how students discuss their learning, I turn to Flipgrid as a way to hear students’ takeaways from class. First, I create my own video to model what they might say in theirs, using a text or discussion topic we have already discussed previously. This way I don’t steal any of their good ideas! By demonstrating how I would like them to respond to a text (by discussing quotes, or connecting the text to a real-world connection), I help them craft their Flipgrid video. To ensure my students watch others’ videos, I ask them to reply to at least two other classmates’ videos on our class discussion board. Using Flipgrid as a formative assessment is a way to assess student learning, using an alternative genre.
I often use Padlet as a type of “exit slip,” or as a way for students to give me feedback. When asking students for the latter, I make sure to update our Padlet’s settings so that participants can submit their responses anonymously. Both types of Padlets will include a direct prompt, such as: What did you learn today about ____? What questions do you still have? Students can see each others’ responses, and they, too, can get a pulse on how our class is doing and what their classmates are thinking. When I ask for feedback, I might prompt them by asking, How is our class going? Or What suggestions do you have? This is a great way for me to receive feedback directly, and because it is anonymous (a must for this kind of teacher feedback!), I trust that students can be more honest. Using a Padlet board as a formative assessment is a way for me to check for their understanding, confusion, and gather overall suggestions for our class.
Teaching online has pushed me to become even more intentional about how I informally assess my students, and how I use those assessments to adapt my instruction. I will continue to find more ways to include formative assessment in my classroom, not only because these types of assessments lead to more effective instruction, but because I know it makes me more responsive to my students’ needs — especially when I can’t rely on hearing their in-the-moment responses during class. When we return to normalcy, I can’t wait to hear their thinking sounds again.
By COURTNEY BROWN & LAURA RIGOLOSI
When teachers are given space to imagine possibilities for their schools and students, time to refine their ideas, and the support necessary to implement new projects, what can they achieve?
Since 2017, we’ve been tackling this question through our collaboration with the North Plainfield, NJ district. In response to a statewide initiative to develop teacher leaders, the district leaders at North Plainfield tapped us to support this development process alongside the implementation of teacher-led passion projects across the district. These passion projects allowed teachers to identify and respond to district-wide issues, while gaining experience in initiating and executing district-wide improvements.
To meet this complex goal, we designed our professional development as an inquiry cycle for teachers based on their interests and passions, while simultaneously studying adult learning theory. Using this model, participating teachers developed an action plan for implementing a passion project alongside an exploration of what it means to lead other adults through the role of a teacher leader.
When designing projects with these types of goals, it’s important to focus on the foundational elements of adult learning theory, providing purposeful, practical, and empowering experiences that are directly related to teachers’ roles and responsibilities. Through meaningful experiences and discussions, we can provide opportunities to learn facilitation skills, explore action planning, and implement an extended inquiry process. Equally important in the design phase is the alignment with New Jersey State Standards and district-level goals. With this in mind, we can customize our professional development as needs evolve from year to year and project to project. The key is to focus on creating safe spaces for teacher leaders as they explore, practice, and reflect on their experiences.
How do you build teacher leaders?
As we begin working with teacher leaders, we make a commitment to read and share the unique elements of adult learning theory. Through training and experience, teacher leaders are well-equipped to plan and present instruction to children, but working with adults is different, and even the best teachers benefit from deepening their understanding of adult learning theory.
With North Plainfield, we encouraged teachers to explore their own learning and leadership styles, and dedicated time for teachers to reflect on situations when they were nurtured by a leader, and what moves those leaders made to create a positive and productive environment. Alongside articles such as Pillars for Adult Learning, we asked teachers to identify their own learning styles within Ellie Drago Severson’s framework of ways of knowing, using a Four Corners protocol. Giving teachers time to explore who they are as leaders, teachers, and all of the identities they bring to their school allowed them to reimagine themselves as learners. We can (and should!) be both leaders and learners at the same time!
In addition to exposing teacher leaders to adult learning theories, we infused literacy practices into our workshops so teachers could use them in their own classrooms. As we read excerpts from Malcolm Knowles’ articles on adult learning, and utilized a text rendering protocol as a model, we demonstrated how to pull key ideas from a text in a concise and collaborative way.
Most importantly, we want our teacher leaders to understand that unlike teaching children, “Adults...tend to have a perspective of immediacy of application toward most of their learning. They engage in learning largely in response to pressures they feel from their current life situation” (Knowles). Using this concept as a guide, we recommend that teachers reflect on their own perceptions of positive leadership, as well as how they can directly apply these tangible qualities to their own work.
Starting and supporting a passion project
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes how motivation is developed through the combination of autonomy, opportunities for mastery, and a driving purpose. With our North Plainfield team — after establishing that as adult learners we all learn and process our learning in different capacities — it seemed only natural that we create space for teacher leaders to consider the issues they were passionate about and ways they might use their passions to enrich their school community. For their passion projects to be successful, we needed three critical components:
Community of practice
Before starting any training for teacher leaders — especially across a district, with teachers who may not usually work together — it is crucial to develop a safe space where participants feel supported and heard. Participants need to be willing to take risks, and also pilot, revise, and push restart on their plans. To help develop a community of practice, we used reflection and sharing strategies such as our Success and Dilemma protocol and A Picture Tells the Story.
We worked closely with North Plainfield’s administrators, who helped teachers with logistical questions and concerns throughout the year. The district is spread out across several schools, and when a group of teacher leaders was planning on implementing a committee to oversee functions and events that would create school spirit, the administrators were able to suggest teachers from other schools who might also be interested in joining this committee. As a result, district-wide events such as a reinvigorated pep rally and an evening fitness event for parents and students were created.
This concept can be replicated in any school district where the administrators are a part of the professional learning. As outsiders to the school, we do not have the privilege to know all of the teachers in a district; this is where having engaged and supportive administration is crucial for bridging the gap between professional learning and teachers, particularly when the professional learning is designed to highlight teachers’ passions.
Allow teachers time and space to brainstorm their passion projects, and use meeting time to plan them with actionable goals in mind. Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang's Strategic Planning for School Change article guided this idea as we worked to incorporate modified design thinking components for small groups into our time with North Plainfield, and as teachers developed individual and collaborative action plans. Approaching this process by first testing a plan and then piloting, tinkering, and iterating is a cycle that can be replicated by any school district — provided that everyone involved feels safe to take risks and fail forward.
What changes are being made in school communities?
Teacher leaders are implementing so many wonderful passion projects in North Plainfield. Their projects are rooted in their passions, and their passions stemmed from improvements they wanted to make in their school community. In challenging areas, teachers saw new opportunities. Here are just a few examples:
Capitalizing on the passions of educators can spark change within a school community, and can empower teachers to take on new leadership opportunities. Allowing teachers space to dream, and investing in their learning creates a powerful pathway for authentic, teacher-driven change within a school district. When teachers are empowered to take on new roles and address real concerns, the possibilities for positive change are limitless.
By LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Literacy is defined as “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write”, and in education, literacy is often perceived as something teachers “teach” their students. But how can teachers increase their own literacy? And why is it important?
Along with a team of CPET educators, we recently partnered with teacher leaders in the MinHang section of Shanghai, focusing on teacher research. With the goal of preparing teachers to write a research proposal by the week’s end, we spent five days in December exploring the key aspects of teacher research, including research questions and rationale, data collection and analysis, literature review, and drawing conclusions.
During our week of preparing teachers for research, we were reminded of the various types of literacy which extend beyond traditional reading and writing to include digital, media, computer, and content literacy, to name a few. For our purposes, we focused on the “literacy” of research, and found that key concepts remained true, even in Shanghai.
Humor helps just about everything
As we explored the research process, we began by brainstorming various teacher research questions that interested our group. Since we don’t speak Mandarin, we needed a translator to communicate, and were lucky enough to have Kaya Wang alongside us, who loved to laugh and make our participants laugh! Kaya posed this research question in our brainstorm: In what ways does teacher humor impact student participation? As facilitators, we know a good question when we see one, so we highlighted this question and used it for the rest of the week as we modeled each aspect of teacher research.
What a difference laughter makes in any classroom! When we asked our group of teachers to complete a model review of literature on the impact of teacher humor, their research, in and of itself, became funny. By the time they began practicing research using questions of their own, they understood the process of developing and analyzing a compelling question, and they had a bit of fun, too.
As facilitators, we realized how powerful it is to sneak the concept of humor into our teaching. It made all of the participants want to participate, and allowed them to understand the concepts we were teaching within the context of humor. When others walked past our classroom and heard laughing, they took a look inside...was this the classroom for “teacher research?” Why was there so much laughter? It made us examine how crucial the model is, and how delightful classrooms can be if humor is involved.
If you don't know, you don't know
While in Shanghai, we spent one evening at a grand spa with pools, baths, reading rooms, a dining area — it was lovely. Remember, this was before Coronavirus, so we had none of the concerns we would now have about going to a spa.
When it was our turn to get a massage, the masseuse was asking questions (in Mandarin) and when we gestured that we didn’t understand, she spoke louder (we shrugged) and even slower (we shrugged again). We had no translation book and no phones on us (everything was in our lockers), so there was no way to translate. In an act of desperation, she took out a worn, laminated sheet to help communicate — except the characters on it were in Mandarin, so this did not help!
When we discussed our spa experience later, we laughed about the misunderstandings (did we mean to get scrubbed down with a loofah sponge?), but also discussed how often this dynamic happens in classrooms. There are so many students in our care who do not have a strong background in English, and while speaking slowly and loudly may seem like a way to bridge a language gap, it won’t be helpful if the listener does not have a solid foundation in the language.
If only there had been basic images or a few key words on that laminated piece of paper, we would have been able to better understand our options and the fees associated with them. (And I’m not sure we would have chosen the painful loofah scrub.) While this is not a new concept, we revisit it often, especially when creating curriculum or trying to reach online learners. When creating content, we remind ourselves of our time at the spa, and strive to incorporate clean, useful visual cues for those we're teaching.
Great teachers make great students
At its core, research is challenging. When factoring in our language barrier with the Shanghai team, the challenges increased. But time and time again, we were reminded of the importance of allowing ourselves to be students, as well as teachers. We learned as much from the educators in Shanghai as they did from us.
At one point, we ventured out to order dinner from the Pizza Hut beside our hotel. After fumbling our way through trying to order a cheese pizza from the menu, the waitress held her phone near us and we learned about a wonderful translation app that made ordering easy. We spoke in English, and the app translated our words into Mandarin. This gave us great confidence as we navigated through Shanghai on our own, and in our sessions with MinHang teachers. This interaction (at Pizza Hut, of all places!) helped remind us of the importance of providing multiple entry points when navigating new content and concepts, and allowed us to position ourselves as learners in an unfamiliar environment.
We found that everyone played the role of student at various times throughout the week — whether discussing research or language, we all experienced the challenges and benefits of learning. Our ability to reverse roles with those we were meant to be teaching served as a tool for professional growth, for all of us. K-12 classrooms can benefit from this role reversal, too — intentionally offering points in our instruction for student expertise to flourish will allow for increased literacy opportunities through modeling, and will offer everyone (teachers included) the chance to practice lifelong learning skills.
Our time in Shanghai broadened our own definition of literacy and how it can involve humor, visual elements, or at least a hefty dose of translations. What began as an institute focused on teacher research morphed into a collaborative learning experience that challenged assumptions and led us to conclude that there are lessons of literacy in many of our daily interactions — whether in your classroom, a local restaurant, or grand spa in Shanghai. As teachers become more entrenched in the literacy opportunities around them, they can expand their practice and deepen their craft.
TAGS: LAURA RIGOLOSI, LITERACY, SHERRISH HOLLOMAN